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Cope Edward Drinker 1840-1897
Edward Drinker Cope
American paleontologist
Equine evolution
Horse evolution is an example of Cope's rule

Edward Drinker Cope (July 28, 1840 – April 12, 1897) was an American biologist. He was notable for his work on fossil animals of North America. Cope was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Cope was a paleontologist, comparative anatomist, herpetologist and ichthyologist. He wrote many papers. His parents were rich Quakers.

His father wanted him to be a farmer, but he became a scientist. He married his cousin. Later, they owned a museum in Philadelphia.

Mostly, he read books on his own to learn science and found things out himself. He was not a teacher. He did field work, and wrote a lot. In the 1870s and 1880s, went to the American West to report what the land was like to the government. He was often on a mapping team sent by the United States Geological Survey.

For a while he and Othniel Charles Marsh were competing to find dinosaurs. This fight between them is called the Bone Wars. Sometimes being a scientist cost him more money than he could afford. In the 1880s, Cope lost so much money in his silver mines that he had to sell a lot of his fossil collection in 1886. In the 1890s he was no longer poor, but he died when he was only 57.

1,400 of his articles were published in science journals. He found over 1,000 species of extinct animals. He wrote about hundreds of kinds of ancient fish. He found dozens of dinosaurs. He wrote about the evolution of mammalian molars teeth, and produced two huge works on the amphibia and reptiles of North America.

Cope showed that horses evolved to be larger as they moved from woodland onto grassland. The fact that the fossils show the mammals getting bigger over time is called Cope's rule.

Early life

EdwardDrinkerCope handwriting1847
Page from Cope’s diary from when he was 7 years old of a sea trip to Boston.

Cope was the first son of Alfred and Hanna Cope. His father was a serious Quaker and ran the shipping business started by his father, Thomas P. Cope. The business was started in 1821. His parents took him to gardens, museums, and zoos. They taught him to read and write and draw.

He started going to school when he was 9 years old. When he was 12, his parents sent him away to a Quaker boarding school. At 15 years old he studied biology (natural history) and often visited the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. They had a Natural history museum.

His letters home show he felt farm work was not for him.p15 Cope’s father made him get a summer job on a farm when he was 14 and 15. When he was 16 he was not sent to the boarding school any more because his father wanted him to be a farmer.p100 His father wanted him to get more exercise, so he bought him a farm. Cope rented out the land to farmers and worked on farms.

When he was 18 years old he, began working at the Academy of Natural Sciences part-time. He took classes. His father paid for them. Still, his father said he should farm. Until he was 23, his letters to his father kept saying he did not want to be a farmer and that he wanted to be a scientist.p100

He worked at the Academy of Natural Sciences for two years, and became a member.p21 He sometimes had to visit the Smithsonian Institution where he met Spencer Baird, who knew all about fish and birds.p107 He also joined the American Philosophical Society. The Academy and the Society published journals, and they accepted his articles.

In 1861 when he was 21 years old, he wrote about classifying salamanders. A salamander is an amphibian.p835 He then took a comparative anatomy class from a famous teacher at the University of Pennsylvania. Cope then asked his father if he could learn German and French so he could read science books and novels in German and French.p101

European travels

At the beginning of the American Civil War Cope tried to get a job helping in a field hospital. Then, when he was 22, he wanted to somehow help out the freed blacks. That year, 1863, he and his fiancée broke up and he was sad. He went to Ireland, England and Europe. During his trip, he met famous scientists.p26-30

While in Germany, he first met his rival, scientist Othniel Charles Marsh.p11 On February 11, 1864, he wrote to his father, “I shall get home in time to . . . be caught by the new draft. I shall not be sorry for this . . . certain persons . . . would be mean enough to say that I have gone to Europe to avoid the war".p138

Early career

Cope’s return home to Philadelphia was before the end of the Civil War. He married a Quaker girl he knew, Annie Pim. She lived on a farm and the wedding was held at her house.

Cope wrote papers on fish, whales, and one on a fossil frog with a tail.p835 Cope’s father gave money to a small Quaker college called Haverford College. The college gave Cope an honorary master's degree and hired him to teach Zoology.p48

Cope went on scientific trips to the American west and wrote letters to his parents and to his wife and daughter while on those trips. He told his father that teaching took up too much of his time for him to make scientific discoveries.p143/6 He quit his job at the college. He and his wife and daughter then moved to Haddonfield to be closer to the fossil beds in western New Jersey.

In Haddonfield, New Jersey were marlpits, where a dinosaur skeleton was discovered in 1858 by William Foulke and named Hadrosaurus foulkii by Dr. Leidy of Philadelphia's Academy of Natural Sciences.p151/8 Cope found more fossils in the marlpits there. For example, he described Elasmosaurus platyurus and Laelaps in 1868. Edward Cope also went on expeditions to caves; the last cave he visited was the Wyandotte Caves in Indiana in 1871.p151/5

In his 30s the Quaker wrote a lot of scientific papers that were published. Charles Sternberg said that in the fossil fields of Kansas Cope had a "severe attack of nightmare . . . every animal of which we had found trace during the day played with him at night . . . sometimes he would lose half the night in this exhausting slumber".p167

Cope also looked for fossils in the west of the United States. In 1872 he explored Eocene rocks. The rocks were 55 to 38 million years old. That year, he worked too much and had a breakdown.p583 In 1873 he studied the Titanothere beds (strata) of northeastern Colorado. Titanothere was a large extinct herbivore.p183/194

The Wheeler Survey

In 1874 Cope volunteered for the Wheeler Survey. These geological mapping trips were led by George Montague Wheeler. They mapped parts of the United States west of the 100th meridian.p200 The 100th meridian west is the boundary between the dry West and the rainy East of the United States.

In 1874 Cope discovered the Puerco formation in New Mexico during the Wheeler Survey.p200 The Puerco formation was a layer of soft rock 500 feet thick along the upper Puerco River near Cuba, New Mexico. It was green and black marl (that contained chemicals used in making fertilizer). Fossils were later found by someone at a similar formation west of there in a different county. Cope said it was like those fossils came from his Puerco formation, which he discovered. His cliff may have been dug by the river over a long time and it looked like it had been there a long time. It was something the scientists he knew had not seen before him. As part of the Wheeler Survey, he was able to shop at commissaries. He was able to get his finding in the reports the survey published. He brought his wife and daughter along on one trip of the survey, renting a house for them. As a volunteer, he paid his own way.p63

Edward Drinker Cope Houses, 2100-2102 Pine Street, Philadelphia (Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania)
Cope's town houses on Pine Street, one used as an office.


Camarasaurus, from the Upper Jurassic of Colorado and Utah. It is the most common sauropod fossil found in North America

When Cope was 35, his father died, leaving him a quarter of a million dollars.p837 The next year, 1876, Cope moved his wife and daughter from their house by the apple orchard in Haddonfield, New Jersey back to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania – this time to a row house in the City. He bought two units and used the one next door as a paleo-lab for his fossil collection. He stopped doing field work to catch up on his writing. He hired teams to look for fossils for him. And, he helped the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition set up their fossil displays.p218 In 1877 he was able to buy half of the American Naturalist.

He published papers so fast his rival, Professor Marsh, had doubts about when Cope’s fossils were found. In August 1878 when he was 38, Cope sailed to the British Isles to attend a scientific convention in Dublin Ireland. He then sailed to France to go to a two-day scientific convention there. At one of the conventions he decided to buy some boxes of Argentine fossils, maybe for the museum in Philadelphia.

When Cope came back, two years-worth of collecting by his man Lucas awaited him. This included a Camarasaurus, a sauropod.p42

The bone wars

In this drawing the large plesiosaur Elasmosaurus is in the lower foreground. Its head was erroneously placed by Cope on the "short end" now known to be the tail...

Cope introduced his (then) friend Marsh to the marl pit owner, Albert Vorhees, when the two visited the site. Later he discovered that Marsh had gone—behind Cope's back and made a private agreement with Vorhees: any fossils that Vorhees's men found were sent back to Marsh at New Haven.p35

In 1868 Professor Marsh said Cope put the skull of dinosaur at the tail end. It was Elasmosaurus, a long-necked plesiosaur. It turned out Marsh was right, and Cope was humiliated.

The feud lasted for the rest of Cope’s life. Both became less wealthy trying to keep the other’s men from digging for fossils. Each criticized the other’s work in the New York Herald. Another time Marsh tried to keep Cope from getting his articles and books published, so Cope hired two fossil-finders away from Marsh.p257

Sharp naturalhistory1920 monoclonius

In 1889, U.S. Geological Survey stopped giving grants to Cope. Marsh persuaded John Wesley Powell to ask Cope to give the Survey the specimens Cope found back in 1874.p233/7 249 Cope did not want to give the fossils to the Survey because when he found them he was a volunteer paying his own way. So, he spoke to the New York Herald.p245/9 The first article was on January 12, 1890. Cope said Marsh underpaid his workers, and said some of what Marsh wrote was really written by others. Also, he said Powell was spending tax money wrong and had made mistakes in classifying fossils.p404 Later, another article gave their side of the story.p206 As a result of the articles, the Survey lost its funding for fossil-finding. Marsh got fired from the Survey. And, Cope almost got fired from the University of Pennsylvania.p329/334 Cope wondered if people thought of him as “a liar . . . actuated by jealousy and disappointment.” He seemed sorry Marsh had been fired, writing to Paleontologist Henry Osborn, “I think Marsh is impaled on the horns of Monoclonius sphenocerus.p408

Later years

Edaphosaurus boanerges
Two Coelophysis specimens mounted at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science

In 1882 Cope wrote a paper about a fossil pelycosaur Edaphosaurus. It looked like a lizard with a huge fin along its back. In 1886 Professor Cope fired his fossil diggers and started selling some of his large fossil collection to museums. He also wrote forty more scientific reports about their findings that year.p242

In 1889 he reported Coelophysis, a slender dinosaur from the Upper Triassic. This little carnivore is one of the earliest dinosaurs found. The same year, he succeeded Joseph Leidy, who had died the previous year, as professor of zoology at the University of Pennsylvania.

In 1892, Cope (then 52 years old) was granted expense money for field work from the Texas Geological Survey. With his finances improved, he was able to publish a massive work on the Batrachians of North America, which was the most detailed work on the continent's frogs and amphibians ever done,p350 and the 1,115-page The Crocodilians, Lizards and Snakes of North America.

In the 1890s his publication rate increased to an average of 43 articles a year.p350 His final expedition to the West took place in 1894, when he prospected for dinosaurs in South Dakota and visited sights in Texas and Oklahoma.

In 1895 Cope re-hired Sternberg, who knew about the nightmares he had about dinosaurs, to look for fossils for him.p358

Cope sold fossils to museums. For example, in 1895 the American Museum of Natural History in New York City bought his collection of about 10,000  fossil mammals.

Cope sold three other collections for $29,000. Although his collection still contained more than 13,000 specimens, Cope's fossil hoard was much smaller than Marsh's collection, which was valued at over a million dollars.

Cope's death

Edward Drinker Cope’s study in 1897
Professor E.D. Cope's Study, about 1897.

In 1896 Cope got sick, and he died on April 12, 1897. His friends told of how they remembered him. They then held the reading of his will. The American Journal of Science had an obituary about Cope. The Naturalist had a longer one. And, the National Academy of Sciences' journal had one years later.

Cope's ideas and character

Edward drinker cope-AAAS 1896
Cope is in the middle of the picture. The exposure was taken at the 1896 American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Buffalo.p830

Edward D. Cope was a Quaker. His biographer Henry Osborn wrote, “If Edward... (had) doubts about the... Bible... he did not (tell) them in his letters to his family, but there can be little question... that he shared the intellectual unrest of the period". Cope was conservative about women working or voting. He felt the husband should be able to take care of his wife and that married women would vote the same as their husbands.p176

He was remembered as not liking the Negro accent, and he believed that if "a race was not white then it was inherently more ape-like".p26, 169, 176

Although his daughter Julia burnt many of his private papers, many of his friends have written about him. Charles R. Knight, a former friend, said that Cope's language was so filthy that "in [Cope's] heyday no woman was safe within five miles of him".p109

People said Cope had great energy and activity and was always interesting, kind and helpful. Others said he had a temper and said he was a "militant paleontologist". Some say he was well-liked by those who lived when he did.p202

Views on evolution

Cope said Charles Darwin's book The Voyage of the Beagle had "too much geology in it".

Over his lifetime Cope's views on evolution shifted.p250 His original view, described in the paper On the Origin of Genera (1868), held that while Darwin's natural selection may affect the preservation of superficial characteristics in organisms, natural selection alone could not explain the formation of genera.

Cope's beliefs became one with an increased emphasis on continual and utilitarian evolution with less involvement of a Creator.p259 He became one of the founders of the Neo-Lamarckism school of thought, which holds that individuals can pass on traits acquired in its lifetime to offspring. Although the view has been shown to be incorrect, it was common among paleontologists in Cope's time.p68 In 1887, Cope published his own Origin of the Fittest: essays in evolution, detailing his views on the subject. He was a strong believer in the law of use and disuse—that an individual will slowly, over time, favor an anatomical part of its body so much that it will become stronger and larger as time progresses down the generations. This theory fails because use and disuse does not affect the genetic code of the gametes, something which became clear in the generations after his death.

  • Alroy, John 1999. Edward Drinker Cope (1840–1897) National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis. University of California, Santa Barbara URL: Retrieved, 2008-11-17.
  • Bowler, Peter 1977. Edward Drinker Cope and the changing structure of evolutionary theory. Isis, 68, #2, pp. 249–265 University of Chicago URL: Retrieved, 2009-12-05 doi:10.1086/351770
  • Fowler, Henry W. 1963. Special Anniversary Features: Cope in retrospect Copeia, vol. 1963, no. 1, pp. 195–198 URL: [1] Retrieved, 2009-12-04 American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists doi:10.2307/1441319
  • Gill, Theodore 1987. Edward Drinker Cope, Naturalist - a chapter in the history of science. The American Naturalist, 31, 370, pp. 831–886. Chicago, IL :University of Chicago Press. doi:10.1086/276725
  • Osborn, Henry Fairfield 1931. Cope: master naturalist: life and letters of Edward Drinker Cope, with a bibliography of his writings. Manchester, New Hampshire: Ayer Company Publishing. ISBN: 978-0-405-10735-1 Google Books No preview
  • Penick, James. 1971. Professor Cope vs. Professor Marsh. American Heritage, 22, iss. 5. URL:
  • Romer, Alfred S. 1964. Cope versus Marsh. Systematic Zoology, 13, #4, 201–207. Taylor & Francis. URL: [2] doi:10.2307/2411780
  • The Academy of Natural Sciences Bone Wars: the Cope-Marsh rivalry. URL: [3] Retrieved, 2009-11-08
  • Haverford College. Quaker and Special Collections: Edward Drinker Cope papers URL: Retrieved, 2009-11-10

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